As without, so within: how the brain’s temporo-spatial alignment to the environment shapes consciousness

Georg Northoff, Philipp Klar, Magnus Bein, Adam Safron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Consciousness is constituted by a structure that includes contents as foreground and the environment as background. This structural relation between the experiential foreground and background presupposes a relationship between the brain and the environment, often neglected in theories of consciousness. The temporo-spatial theory of consciousness addresses the brain–environment relation by a concept labelled ‘temporo-spatial alignment’. Briefly, temporospatial alignment refers to the brain’s neuronal activity’s interaction with and adaption to interoceptive bodily and exteroceptive environmental stimuli, including their symmetry as key for consciousness. Combining theory and empirical data, this article attempts to demonstrate the yet unclear neuro-phenomenal mechanisms of temporo-spatial alignment. First, we suggest three neuronal layers of the brain’s temporo-spatial alignment to the environment. These neuronal layers span across a continuum from longer to shorter timescales. (i) The background layer comprises longer and more powerful timescales mediating topographic-dynamic similarities between different subjects’ brains. (ii) The intermediate layer includes a mixture of medium-scaled timescales allowing for stochastic matching between environmental inputs and neuronal activity through the brain’s intrinsic neuronal timescales and temporal receptive windows. (iii) The foreground layer comprises shorter and less powerful timescales for neuronal entrainment of stimuli temporal onset through neuronal phase shifting and resetting. Second, we elaborate on how the three neuronal layers of temporo-spatial alignment correspond to their respective phenomenal layers of consciousness. (i) The inter-subjectively shared contextual background of consciousness. (ii) An intermediate layer that mediates the relationship between different contents of consciousness. (iii) A foreground layer that includes specific fast-changing contents of consciousness. Overall, temporo-spatial alignment may provide a mechanism whose different neuronal layers modulate corresponding phenomenal layers of consciousness. Temporo-spatial alignment can provide a bridging principle for linking physical-energetic (free energy), dynamic (symmetry), neuronal (three layers of distinct time–space scales) and phenomenal (form featured by background–intermediate–foreground) mechanisms of consciousness.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20220076
JournalInterface Focus
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 14 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • consciousness
  • spatio-temporal neuroscience
  • temporo-spatial dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Biophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomaterials
  • Biomedical Engineering


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